One of the top books of 2011 was Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, The Romanovs, and best known for Nicholas and Alexandra.
Massie’s latest work tells the extraordinary story of an obscure young German princess who traveled to Russia as a teenager and rose to become one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history.
Unlike Nicholas and Alexandra, Catherine is hardly unknown, and part of a biographer’s job these days is sorting out the truth from myth. Massie based his book mostly on Catherine’s own memoirs and on already published research.
Catherine was raised by a remote father and a bullying, unloving mother and was shipped off to Russia at 16 to marry Charles Peter Ulrich (later Peter III), her oafish second cousin, also 16, already a heavy drinker and more interested in dressing in uniform and playing with tin soldiers than in sex.
Lonely, friendless, spottily educated, she nevertheless mastered the intricacies of the Russian court, staged a coup, won over the people and became empress. Right at the start she did two very smart things: learned Russian and embraced the Russian Orthodox faith, which immediately endeared her to the Russian people.
In a recent interview, Massie stated that Catherine’s story, which he began working on in 2004, in some ways parallels that of Marie Antoinette: an early, unhappy and sexually frustrating marriage; initial bewilderment at a mysterious court dominated by a powerful and willful monarch (Louis XV in Marie’s case, the Empress Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt, in Catherine’s).
“But I don’t think Marie was as isolated as Catherine,” he said, “and she didn’t spend as much time educating herself. Some people have more — more courage, I don’t know about more intelligence. Catherine, though the pawn of her mother’s ambition, was also very ambitious herself. She thought, ‘All right, I’ll marry this creep.’ The thought of the throne sustained her.”
Catherine’s life divides roughly in half — she was 33 when she became empress and 67 when she died — and so does Massie’s biography.
“The story of how she got there is just as interesting if not as historically relevant as what she accomplished on the throne,” he said. “The whole story of the life as it unfolded was absolutely fascinating.
“I have four daughters… I think that Catherine is almost a lesson book. There were lots of moments of despair, but she carried on. She carried through. She’s an example. She won. …I found that exhilarating, and in a sense, reassuring.”
Catherine the Great is also the subject of a novel just published in January, entitled The Winter Palace, by Canadian author Eva Stachniak. Both this work and Massie’s biography are available through the Okanagan Regional Library.